“Constructive” is the word Keir Starmer hopes will define the opening act of his leadership, or at least his response to the coronavirus pandemic. Take his spokesperson’s readout of his latest conversation with Dominic Raab this morning: “The call was constructive.” But what does that emphasis mean for “unity”, the other watchword of Starmerism?
The leak of the report into anti-Corbyn sentiment among officials at Labour HQ over the Easter weekend already meant that Starmer would find uniting the party rather more difficult than the size of his mandate might have implied. One need only look to John McDonnell’s Twitter account for evidence of the left’s appetite to complicate the task before the new regime.
On Sunday evening (19 April), the former shadow chancellor gave voice, as well as a recognisable face, to a critique of Starmer that has found plenty of purchase on the Labour left: that an opposition whose aim is to be a constructive partner to the government ends up as a toothless accessory to its failings.
McDonnell went on to appropriate the language of Starmer’s acceptance speech: “It’s not opposition for opposition’s sake to call out Gvt’s failure to pursue effective test & track programme & supply basic protection to front line staff & to neglect support for care homes & care workers. People are dying as a result.”
Writing for LabourList on the pandemic and the future of the party’s left today, the former deputy leadership candidate Richard Burgon is similarly pointed. “Of course, where the government does the right thing, it is quite right that we work with it constructively,” he writes. “But it is even more essential that we apply maximum pressure when it is failing – as it is on so many fronts – to do what is needed. Lives literally depend on it.” Call it constructive criticism.
It says much about where the left goes next. Burgon has seamlessly transitioned from spokesperson for the Labour leadership, as was his public-facing role during his time in the shadow cabinet, to shop steward for the parliamentary left as secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group. Like others at the grass roots, he has cast himself as the inheritor of the Bennite mantle of internal resistance: all the better, the thinking goes, to impress upon members that the Labour left did not begin with Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign.
Meanwhile, McDonnell, having bequeathed the organisational leadership of the Labour left to a new generation, is now effectively its moral conscience and spiritual leader. The discontent cannot be confined to the back benches either: of the 28 signatories to a Campaign Group letter demanding action from Starmer into the leaked report into alleged misconduct at HQ, 11 are on the front bench.
Neither group is yet criticising Starmer personally, but it is striking that they should attack his approach so publicly and so early. Jeremy Corbyn himself has suggested that he will be an interventionist presence on the back benches and, in his first interview since Starmer’s ascension last week – with the Benn Society, appropriately enough – he warned his successor against any “accommodation” with the Conservatives. From a left-wing perspective, Starmer’s gambit appears to veer dangerously close to that territory.
But to what end are MPs calling it out? Supporters of the leadership in the PLP console themselves with the numbers – Starmer’s strong first-round victory, Burgon’s own third place in the contest for deputy, the left’s failure to win any of the three vacant seats on Labour’s National Executive Committee, the trickle of Corbynites resigning their party membership. But the purpose of interventions such as Burgon’s is to demonstrate that this isn’t a full-time score and that the battle of ideas is still ongoing – and there to be won for the left.